"I'm trying to explore robot characteristics rather than trying to force robot characteristics into human ones."
The robot band. Image: Warp
UK-based artist Squarepusher (a pseudonym for Tom Jenkinson) is not shy when it comes to mixing music with cutting-edge tech, and his upcoming release Music for Robots continues to push at technological limits.
His previous album Ufabulum was focused on live performance; an exchange between a backdrop of LEDs and a flurry of breaks and screeching synths. With his latest venture, the music is still live, but it isn't a human performing. Instead, a band of robots, made up of two guitarists, a drummer, and a pianist, play music that Squarepusher has composed for them. The “Z-Machines,” designed by Kenjiro Matsuo, have mostly been used to shred metal in the past, probably due to the incredible speeds they 're capable of reaching. But Squarepusher is taking a different approach.
“To make music using instrument-playing robots fascinates me,” he says in a promo video. “People have often assumed that for music to be emotionally powerful it has to come directly from a human hand, whereas I disagree with that, and enjoy proving these people wrong. This project is an excellent way of exploring that area more.”
Are machines capable of producing music that is compelling or interesting? If they are, is that emotional component coming from their composers, or do they have something of their own to contribute?
I called up Squarepusher to ask him to explain the thesis behind the Music for Robots EP, and the challenges that arise when composing for machines.
Motherboard: How does composing for robots differ to composing for humans?
Squarepusher: One way to consider that is in terms of the limits of each respective type of performer. Taking the guitar player as an example, they will have certain limits such as how many notes they can play a second, and the amount of span they have across the frets. With a robot guitar player there are very different answers to any given set of questions. In terms of what the robots can do, it's quite different: the speed at which they can play is much faster, and the frets they can span is greater.
Squarepusher. Image: Warp
But compositional ideas can come from experimenting with the limits of what the machine can do. For example, a section of track number four on this EP is not really borne of any compositional process that I would call strictly musical. It's much more about assembling sequences of notes on the basis of mathematical equations and plotting the results of those equations onto what the robot will do. That was done partly as a means of exploring what would happen at the very limits of its speed. The point of using this equation-based process to generate sequences of notes was to push that system into overload to see what it would do.
And when you're not pushing the limits of these robots, do you find the range of possibilities overwhelming? The guitarists have 72 fingers, and the drummer has 22 arms. With so much at your disposal, is it quite difficult to start?
I'm quite used to sitting in a studio that is absolutely chocker full of equipment and lots of different instruments, all of which have their own capacities and idiosyncrasies. One way which I've described it before is to basically run a virtual image of the studio in your head at the same time as using it, so that instead of accessing physically the front-panel or functions of a particular device, you can do it in advance in your head.
Okay. What sort of technical obstacles did you come across?
One was the drumming robot. If you picture a drum stick-wielding mechanical device, which swings towards the drums when you set the command to play a note, there's a time delay between when you send the note and when you hear the drum being played. So if you send a new note before the stick has come back to a rest position, then the distance is shorter, therefore the time delay is different. Aspects like that can be a problem. But one way you could look at it is actually as an advantage: What I was trying to do was to make a machine kind of funk that uses these idiosyncrasies to generate a swing and a flow to the way in which the rhythms were generated.
The robot guitarist. Image: Warp
A swing, a funk—these are things that are predominantly human, right?
Yeah, those terms can refer to human nuance in playing. You may simply emulate what a human being would do, and generate your composition accordingly. But what I've been trying to do is certainly not that; instead I'm trying to explore robot characteristics rather than trying to force robot characteristics into human ones.
It's the robots' own nuances coming out. So what sort of questions came up when you were composing for these robots?
There is often a prejudice that if music isn't being played by humans, it is prejudged as incapable of generating emotional responses. I wanted to ask whether music performed by robots could be compelling or interesting.
Yeah, there is often the idea that machines are somehow lesser when it comes to performing music.
I personally think that [humans and robots] stand shoulder to shoulder. I don't see it in terms of being better or worse than each other, so much as having different characteristics.
The robot drummer. Image: Warp
In this project the machines were ready-built and ready to play music. I was interested to see whether they could bring a nuance that was inhuman but compelling; whether having something interesting about music is necessarily also a human thing. The broadest question that I'm trying to ask is, even if these robots do something that is interesting, or something that aggravates people, whatever it is—if it produces a response, given that the performers themselves are not sentient, then does the responsibility shift wholeheartedly back to myself, the composer?
Sure. What about the future, and a computer that could autonomously compose music? Would that have the potential to create compelling music?
I think people who take time to design such algorithms might be trying to generate a system that would echo or mimic the kind of behaviour human composers undertake when they write music. What I'm interested in is actually what happens when you set aside emulation of human characteristics and instead engage with the characteristics of the machine, as you find it. In some ways, I am at my most inspired and dynamic when I'm having to struggle with the machines, the methods with which I've chosen to compose, and the situation I'm in. Working with these machines has been a fascinating situation.
Music for Robots will be released digitally April 8, and on vinyl May 20.